Mordenkainen’s Disguised Monster Manual

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is out, and to a large extent it’s a third Monster Manual for 5E, much as Volo’s Guide to Monsters was a second one. That said, as with Volo’s Guide the fat stack of new monsters is backed up by some delicious setting material offering stuff for both players and GMs to chew on; in 2nd edition terms, then, it’s perhaps more like a Monstrous Compendium appendix joined at the hip with a collection of mini-Van Richten’s Guide-type supplements putting a microscope on particular creatures.

This time, the book is deliberately less Forgotten Realms-focused; not only is Mordenkainen a Greyhawk native (Gary Gygax’s first PC, in fact – and the often morally dubious exploits of him and Bigby in Gary’s home campaign are alluded to in the text here), but the detailed treatments on offer cover a set of major conflicts which repeat themselves across the mulitiverse on numerous campaign worlds and planes. You’ve got the Blood War between devils and demons, you’ve got elves vs. drow, you’ve got dwarves vs. dueregar, you have githyanki vs. githzerai, and to round out the treatment of iconic PC races you have a look at how halflings and gnomes alike are able to eke out their comfy existences despite all the conflict around them. (This includes a canonical statement that Kender are the halflings of the Dragonlance setting, which I am sure will make Dragonlance superfans infuriated even though they’re dead to rights there.)

On the whole, this is a useful exercise in teasing out lore which had been seeded in a range of monster statblocks and other supplemental material from right back to the 1st edition days and compiling it in centralised descriptions which enrich the cultures of the folks described. The elf stuff does a great job of selling the Eladrin and Feywild ideas even to stuffy old 4E refuseniks like me, the duergar material injects them with a fat shot of flavour by leaning hard on the “twisted by slavery under the Mind Flayers” aspect of their history, the Blood War stuff updates the idea nicely and the githyanki/githzerai stuff gives a really vivid look at their weird-ass ways of life.

All of this comes with useful system bits here and there that are enormously useful. Do you want special powers for devil cultists or folks who’ve made pacts with particular demons? Do you want PC githzerai or githyanki? Do you want to tweak the flavour of your Tiefling depending on which Lord of the Nine they descend from? It’s all here.

As far as the monster selection goes, there’s a decent focus on the subjects covered (so you have a devil, demon or drow for all occasions) as well as some nice miscellaneous bits and pieces. The lavish descriptions of major demons and devils are my favourite, if only for the brimstone-tinted whiff of the joy to be had reading their original Monster Manual writeups.

In general, Wizards’ quality-over-quantity approach to 5E releases seems to be paying off still. The more multiversal approach leaves me with hope of more non-Realms setting material to come – for one thing, it would be odd to spill so many words on Oerth and Krynn in this book if there were not some intent of eventually doing something with them. And as well as the githzerai and the githyanki, this book updates for 5E the giff – the spacefaring, gun-toting hippo people from Spelljammer


Curated Arcana

5th Edition D&D has been extremely careful about its pace of expansion. Part of that seems to come from resources, of course – Wizards of the Coast no longer throw the amount of personnel at the tabletop RPG that they did back in the 3.X or 4E days. It also, however, seems to have arisen from a rather laudable attempt to avoid the runaway bloat, character optimisation and bad-faith builds that proliferated like wildfire in the 3.X days, or the deeply embarrassing process of radically re-engineering basic game systems on a supplement-by-supplement basis that happened to 4E (with its regular overhauls of the skill challenge system and constant tinkering with the encounter maths).

For 5E, Wizards seem to have taken the approach that slow and steady wins the race. New official expansions come out gradually. For Adventurer’s League purposes, they’ve taken the extremely sensible decision of declaring that legal character builds can be based only on the Player’s Handbook and one other official source (not including Unearthed Arcana), with the result that they’ve actually made it possible to produce halfway balanced material – it would quickly become impossible to balance every new 5E release against every single other new 5E release, but if you just have to balance each new supplement against the core material then the job becomes halfway viable.

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Kickstopper: Righteously Bland

This isn’t going to be a fully developed Kickstopper article because in all honesty I don’t have that much to say about the Kickstarter fulfillment process for the new 5E version of Aaron Loeb’s Book of the Righteous – Green Ronin were reasonably communicative, shipment of the physical books came about half a year after estimate but PDF delivery was substantially before then and that’s really not much as far as Kickstarter delays go, and crucially delays were clearly signposted and explained. I have no real complaints there and would generally trust Green Ronin to do right by their backers in future Kickstarters. Great job, ronins, hope you find a master who can make proper samurai of you again one day.

As far as the product itself goes, it’s clearly a well-realised product with decent art and production values, but I suspect how much you’d want to make use of it hinges on your personal philosophy of worldbuilding and the place of religion in it. For some, the book will be an absolutely amazing tool. For others, and I include myself in this category, I think it would be a bit of a woolen teapot – the craft and artistry involved in making it is impressive, but I’d never want to actually use it for its declared purpose.

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One OGL To Rule Them All

D&D and Middle-Earth have had a rather complex history. On the one hand, Gygax admitted to not enjoying Tolkien as much as more sword and sorcery-esque fare, and that certainly comes across in the more mercenary assumptions of early editions. At the same time, Gygax knew what was popular. Part of the motivation for Gygax’s original fantasy rules to Chainmail that gave Dave Arneson the seed that became the original Blackmoor campaign, which went on to spawn D&D once the feedback loop passed it through Gygax again, was a desire to pander to a desire to do Tolkienesque battles that had been percolating about in the wargame scene. The balors, treants and halflings of D&D were originally named as balrogs, ents, and hobbits until the Tolkien estate caughed and asked them to stop.

Following that, decades passed with no official meeting of D&D and Middle-Earth, despite some sort of Middle-Earth RPG existing for much of that time span. ICE’s MERP was based off Rolemaster, Decipher’s heavily movie-based Lord of the Rings RPG used their CODA system, and of course Cubicle 7’s The One Ring is a bespoke system made specifically for that game.

However, let it not be said that Cubicle 7 are blind to an opportunity. They have the Middle-Earth RPG licence, Wizards put out a pretty functional OGL for 5E, all the tools were there for them to make a legal, commercially viable Middle-Earth adaptation for D&D, so that’s exactly what they have done in the form of Adventures In Middle-Earth, the rules for which are presented in the Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide.

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Monster: the Monstering

Although Vampire: the Masquerade popularised the whole “you play the monsters” thing, there’s been a tradition of that in RPGs for a very long time. In the 1970s Tunnels & Trolls variant Monsters! Monsters! cast players as dungeon monsters fighting incursions of adventurers, and of course back in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign that yielded the seed of what Gary Gygax would wrangle into a commercially viable game product you had Sir Fang, a vampire player character who was so gamewreckingly unbalanced (Dave Arneson wasn’t very good at rules, go figure) that the cleric class had to be invented specifically so a Van Helsing-type could put Fang back in his box (which is a coffin because vampire).

More generally, the immediate aftermath of the release of Dungeons & Dragons involved a big wave of people cooking up wild homebrew stuff. The nice thing about OD&D is that in those three little booklets it gave you fairly clear formats for coming up with new content – it’s easy enough to set your hand to making new monsters, spells, and player character races and classes.

Over OD&D‘s lifespan a range of odd variants of the game developed as a result of that, ranging from root and branch revisions of the entire game like Warlock, interpretations on how to resolve some of D&D‘s ambiguities like the Perrin Conventions, flat-out unauthorised third party supplements like The Arduin Grimoire, and that’s just taking into account material that saw publication: there were also uncountable local micro-variants of the game, not least because each gaming table running OD&D would inevitably​ develop its own house rules simply because the core books have some areas where there’s no one clear, unambiguous interpretation available. Offbeat character races and classes were a regular feature of these variants.

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Mike Mearls’ Vindication

In the interests of putting something positive at the top o’ the blog, I want to recommend Mike Mearls’ twitter account. It’s remarkably informative.

For instance, earlier this month he offered up a really nice breakdown of how streaming and podcasting games has fed back into game design. I find it particularly interesting for illustrating how the forum culture during the 3E-4E years ended up freezing out some preferences, and gave abstract theory the upper hand for a while to the detriment of actual play at the table. It’s particularly interesting because it ties into some of the stuff Mearls was saying during the D&D Next playtest process, where he talked about the designers were surprised at how much appetite there was for a simpler, lighter game than 3E or 4E.

You also have him slipping out bombshells like the fact that over its lifetime the 5E Player’s Handbook has outsold the lifetime sales of the 3E, 3.5E, and 4E Player’s Handbooks (individually, not combined). Of course, we just have his word for it. But I am not sure WotC or Hasbro would be too thrilled with Mike sharing such information on his public twitter feet, using the #WotCStaff hashtag, unless it were true by at least some definition. (Mike makes it clear in subsequent tweets that this is in terms of books sold, not cash revenue.)

I can’t help but see this as a bit of well-deserved vindication of the new direction Mearls has taken D&D in – especially in terms of steering it back to the “big church” approach and going for a slow and steady release schedule rather than a glut of extra supplements. The forum culture may whine that it isn’t getting enough grist for the charop mill, but I think it is healthier for the game overall.

5E: Learning to Expand

One of the things that 5E has done that’s really helped to convince me that Wizards have turned a corner with their management of Dungeons & Dragons is to slow down the pace at which products are churned out for the tabletop game. To keep up with 3.X and 4E often required matching pace with a rapid release schedule; even if you wanted to go “core only”, in 4E you kind of had to pay attention to the regularly released errata, particularly if you were using D&D Insider to produce characters (and many cite DDI as an essential component of the 4E era), because of course the errata would be applied to the online character generator in turn. By easing off on the pace of releases, Wizards have been able to make sure the barrier to entry isn’t allowed to escalate and provide a stable platform for the development of videogames like Sword Coast Adventures.

At the same time, if Wizards never bring out new material for 5E, they pretty much lose our custom after we’ve bought the core books, particularly if we are not interested in the published adventures put out for the game. So far they’ve come up with three distinct channels for expanding the game, only one of which is not available for free.

The Website

Expansion material on the Wizards website has taken two forms, both of which are inspired by the game’s long history. Sage Advice started out decades ago as the system questions-and-answers section in Dragon magazine, and has been brought back on the website to provide helpful guidance on areas of the rules people are confused about. Helpfully, Wizards have been compiling the columns in a regularly-updated PDF, so those that find the Sage’s advice reassuring can have it in one convenient, searchable file. Personally, I have few qualms about making rulings about such things on the spot and pressing on, but I can see how such clarifications can be necessary in an organised play context or be helpful to new players, and the 5E incarnation of the Sage shows an admirably light touch and a willingness to say “Hey, it’s your game, the rule is intended to work like X but if you prefer to work it like Y you won’t wreck anything”.

The other component of the website offerings is Unearthed Arcana. The original UA consisted of a hardback of updates and new rules for 1E, rushed out by Gary Gygax in a bid to put TSR’s fortunes back on track. The 5E incarnation riffs on the original’s reputation for incorporating material that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, or which hadn’t been rigorously playtested; it offers up snippets of rules that are currently undergoing development but which are explicitly not ready for prime time and aren’t necessarily suitable for all campaigns. These have included treats like the much-requested nonmagical ranger variant, early drafts at converting some Eberron material to 5E, and a first pass at putting together a psionics system for 5E – this last having already been cited as a necessary prerequisite for putting out a 5E take on Dark Sun. These Unearthed Arcana articles are exactly the sort of mixed bag you would expect from the concept, but they are clearly and loudly labelled as such and it’s nice to see that the development team are still keen on doing wide playtesting of new ideas and working on interesting stuff in the background.

Player’s Companion

This expansion – including a bunch of elemental-themed options and spells (including honest to goodness aarakocra stats) – is explicitly branded to tie into the Elemental Evil storyline, right down to including the Elemental Evil name on the front cover and using art that has also heavily featured in the website material promoting the storyline. The idea seems to be to provide material that thematically ties in neatly with Princes of the Apocalypse – the published home campaign for the Elemental Evil storyline – as well as the relevant Adventurer’s League adventures, but without tying it so closely to that story that you can’t use the stuff in here in your average home campaign.

At the same time, it’s very much a Player’s Companion. There’s not much setting material or DM-side stuff here, and it’s also so tightly themed that it’s quite brief – you can download it as a free PDF or get a hardcopy printed through DriveThruRPG for a nominal cost. It’s a nice present to the fanbase, but it’s not really something that can actually boost the game line’s revenue.

Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

This is basically the core 5E setting book for the Forgotten Realms, offering up a general overview of the continent of Faerun and a really complete guide to the gods of the Realms, along with a brief history. Still, as the title implies it’s the Sword Coast that gets the most attention here, from Icewind Dale in the north all the way down to Baldur’s Gate.

This, frankly, is just plain smart. The Sword Coast is the setting of all the adventures released officially for 5E so far, so those who have been keeping up with that in their home campaigns or through organised play will already have fond memories of it, and it’s also where the most fondly-remembered Forgotten Realms videogames took place – Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate, obviously, but also Neverwinter Nights, Eye of the Beholder, and Curse of the Azure Bonds. Putting all of the Realms under a similarly detailed microscope would result in a fat and expensive book, but this way Wizards are able to give a detailed overview of the part of the Realms which is arguably the most famous and popular whilst giving enough details about other lands that even if they never put out another regional sourcebook you’ll still be able o run games in them.

The regional details are given as in-character travelogues rather than OOC statements of fact, because unlike previous presentations of the setting this is meant to be a player-facing book and the DM is explicitly encouraged to dream up their own answers to mysteries in the text. On top of that, much of the book is system-neutral, making it useful for fans of prior editions who want to stay current with the setting lore but don’t want to use 5E.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of all is how little mention there is of the more overpowered and overused NPCs of the setting; though Drizzt and Elminster are mentioned in the introduction, they’re almost entirely absent from the rest of the text. A lot has been made of how the changes to the setting made in the Guide seem mostly intended to roll back the unpopular changes made during the 4E era, but in terms of the book’s philosophy the writers seem to have gone back way further to try and recapture the “this is your Forgotten Realms, canon be damned!” approach that fans prize in the setting’s earliest products. This is despite the fact that Wizards have continued to knock out Drizzt and Elminster novels from RA Salvatore and Ed Greenwood at a merry pace. To be honest, I don’t mind Drizzt and Elminster as characters in books, because it isn’t really reasonable to expect Wizards to publish Realms novels with INSERT YOUR PC HERE written whenever the protagonist’s name is mentioned; by definition, any novels set in a game line must present protagonists who end up solving problems that PCs in a tabletop game ought to be solving themselves, and evidently Drizzt and Elminster still have fanbases enthusiastic enough to justify making them the characters in question; at the same time, Wizards seem to have realised that the less their presence is felt in the tabletop product, the better you undermine the old perception that Forgotten Realms is overly dominated by superpowered NPCs and the more space you leave for people to hang their own ideas off the adventure hooks proffered.

As far as system bits go, the chapter offering these is brief but flavourful, and the designers show a fair degree of restraint in how they implement stuff – in particular, they don’t feel obligated to completely stat out Realms-specific racial variants or subclasses if a perfectly serviceable type is already available in the Player’s Handbook. Neatly, they also include an appendix with advice on how the new subclasses and so on could be incorporated into homebrew worlds or other D&D campaign worlds, including Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Eberron. If Wizards ever get around to adapting those worlds to 5E (which seems likelier for Eberron, which apparently is in the top tier as far as setting popularity goes these days, than second-tier worlds like Greyhawk or Dragonlance), these sections might feel a little redundant next to the more world-specific material put out for the settings, but if they don’t this is a nice courtesy and it doesn’t take up too much space.

One notable thing about the supplement is that, like the adventures preceding it, it wasn’t written in-house by Wizards but done on commission by a third party – in this case Green Ronin. Wizards are obviously keen to maintain good relations with third party developers in the 5E era, going so far as to print an advert for a whole heap of non-D&D Green Ronin products at the back of the book, and I suspect engagement with third parties will be how Wizards manages to bring back some of the less popular settings – simply by licencing them out with correspondingly more financial risk and responsibility for printing on the shoulders of the licensees the more niche the setting is.

If the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is anything to go by, 5E is going to be a markedly easier game to keep up with than 3.X or 4E, with the supplement firmly steering away from extra crunch for the sake of it and aiming for quality over quantity in the system additions it does make, with an emphasis on providing appropriate additional options within the existing framework of the game rather than bending or breaking that framework altogether. This could well prove to be a sustainable model for a more evergreen edition of the game, which is fine by me.